The Mount Carmel freshman boys basketball team is seated in a hallway at Marist High School.
It's halftime, and even though the Caravan's minor-league accommodations don't include a locker room, their coach is going on a major-league rant.
"Don't just foul somebody just to foul him and let him make a layup," the coach says, voice rising as the players sit in silent attention. "If you're going to foul somebody, foul him like a man!"
The coach slams a foot to emphasize the point, her high-heeled shoe sending a sharp echo through the hallway.
Hannah Puckorius is one of the few females who coach a boys high school team in the Chicago area. Her sport is especially selective when it comes to female coaching involvement.
Some boys sports, such as volleyball and swimming, always have featured female coaches as part of the game. In others, like basketball, baseball, football and wrestling, female coaches are very rare. Women who choose to coach typically male-dominated sports face many challenges, but the ones who spoke with the Tribune hope they can show sex doesn't decide one's coaching capability — no matter the sport.
Of the 342 varsity boys basketball teams in the Chicago area of Cook, DuPage, Lake, McHenry, Kane, Kendall, Will, Kankakee and Grundy counties, only three have female head coaches.
Miriam Tesfamikael is one, along with Jennifer Bender of Golder and Kristin Judson of Muchin. Tesfamikael took over at Woodlawn, a University of Chicago-affiliated charter school with an enrollment of 411, this season after two years as a boys assistant.
Tesfamikael grew up playing basketball in Columbia, Mo., and played for two years at the University of Chicago. While in college, she volunteered as a coach at St. Thomas the Apostle Grade School, helping coach fifth- through seventh-grade boys.
"Pretty early I knew I wanted to stick with boys," Tesfamikael said. "I have really high standards for girls basketball, so I didn't think I would be patient enough to coach girls unless I could start out coaching a really, really good team. That's usually not the way it works, though."
Her debut leading the Warriors has been an unqualified success. The team, which in the school's first six years never won more than two games in a season, is 10-4 and qualified for the city playoffs for the first time, in the lower-tier Green Division.
Wednesday's 57-48 victory against Legal Prep Charter was the second time Woodlawn has faced Legal Prep this season. The Warriors stormed to a 20-point lead in the third quarter at Purcell Hall in West Garfield Park but had to hold on as Legal Prep mounted a furious fourth-quarter comeback.
Legal Prep coach Steve Terrazas admitted to being surprised when he first saw Tesfamikael on the opposing bench.
"I did a double take at first because it was something new for me," said Terrazas, who's also the school's football coach. "But after that it was like, cool, let's play ball.
"I've been coaching at Legal Prep for five years. I know how hard it is to get respect in this city for any coach. To see the way her kids listen to her and respect her, that shows she's doing great things."
Even with Tesfamikael's success, she said she had to overcome biases from her players, referees and opposing coaches before she felt accepted.
While Tesfamikael has earned the respect of most of her opponents, the behavior of one coach still sticks in her craw.
"He kept calling me 'Little Lady' literally the whole game," she said, raising her palm to her forehead. "It drove me nuts. I wanted to react so bad, but I had to bite my tongue."
Referees are another obstacle.
"They're happy to talk to my two guy assistants, but it can be a challenge to get them to come over and talk to me," she said. "Sometimes I'm almost hoping for one to say, 'Sit down, Coach, that's enough,' instead of just ignoring me."
Before Puckorius coached at Mount Carmel, the Fenwick High and DePaul University graduate started as a fifth-grade coach at St. Giles in Oak Park. She said the 10- and 11-year-old boys circulated a petition against her before the season.
"They were like, 'What the heck — we have a girl coaching us?' " Puckorius remembered. "But I shut that down pretty quickly, and eventually they all came around."
Woodlawn point guard JaTaun Blakemore wasn't as active in his initial disapproval toward his female coach, but he admitted to some conflicted feelings upon learning he would be taking orders from Tesfamikael.
"A girl's coaching us? Really?" Blakemore said. "I was a little nervous. People don't think girls know sports."
Tesfamikael won a few shooting contests against her players, which helped win some converts. When the Warriors started winning, the whole team quickly got on board.
"At that point we started taking a lot of pride in it." Blakemore said. "Like yeah, our girl coach taught us these plays, our girl coach put in this defense. And we just got a 'W' against you, so she must know what she's doing."Angela Kus John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune
Chicago Senn wrestling coach Angela Kus gathers her team and managers before competition in the IHSA wrestling regional at Fenton on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017, in Bensenville.
Chicago Senn wrestling coach Angela Kus gathers her team and managers before competition in the IHSA wrestling regional at Fenton on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017, in Bensenville.(John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune)
A different ballgame
Angela Kus is the head wrestling coach and a football assistant at Senn. Like Tesfamikael, she is one of the three women among 250 teams in the Chicago area — with Harper's Andrea Hale and Kennedy's Brenda Cerda — to head a varsity boys program in her sport.
While basketball offers its own successful female version of the sport, wrestling is one of the most masculine sports kids can play. Girls have increased their involvement through the years, but female wrestling coaches are still very rare.
Kus, a 1999 graduate of all-girls Mother McAuley High School, volunteered to coach the wrestling team when it was in danger of disbanding if a coach couldn't be found.
"Absolutely not. No way," Kus said of her initial reaction. "Then they convinced me to do it, but I told them they get me for one year, that's it."
Like her basketball counterparts, Kus had to earn respect, and she also had to learn the sport's rules and techniques. The ins and outs of wrestling came quickly, but Kus said she still is fighting for respect even after three years as a varsity head coach.
It is not uncommon for an opposing wrestler to come over to Senn's corner for the postmatch handshake and look past Kus, trying to find the Bulldogs coach.
"It's like, 'No, I really am the coach, believe it or not,' " said Kus, who also works with Senn's offensive and defensive lines as an assistant football coach.
One opponent went so far as to refuse to shake Kus' hand.
"Fortunately his mother was in the stands," Kus said. "She screamed at him and he had to come over and shake my hand."
Sabi Kadri advanced to Saturday's Class 2A Wauconda Sectional by finishing third in the 220-pound weight class at the Fenton Regional in Bensenville. He said Kus is so respected as an English and philosophy teacher at Senn that she didn't have to do much to win over her team.
"The way society is, males are seen as better at some things," Kadri said. "But wrestling isn't all about strength; it's mostly about technique, and she's a really good teacher."
Added 160-pounder Nelson De La Cruz: "Wrestling has always been considered a male-dominated, macho sport. Sometimes people look at her and are astonished she's the head coach. But she's just as capable and demanding as any other coach. Sometimes she's even stricter."
Laura McKelvey holds perhaps the rarest position in the state for a female coach. She is in her third year as the head baseball coach at Johnson College Prep, a Noble charter school with 844 students in Englewood. She is the only woman varsity head coach among the Chicago area's 289 teams.
McKelvey grew up a huge baseball fan, taking family vacations to ballparks across the country, at one point attending Yankees, Mets and Phillies games on one trip.
"I've always loved baseball," said McKelvey, a native of the Detroit area who was placed at Johnson by the Teach For America program. "I played as a kid, so I already was familiar with the game. The only thing I really had to study up on was the difference between baseball pitching and softball pitching."
McKelvey said most interactions with her baseball peers have been positive, but like Tesfamikael, she owns a vivid memory of one less-than-enlightened man's reaction to a female head coach.
"One of the umpires was an older gentleman, and he kept calling me 'Sweetheart' throughout the game," Johnson said. "I get that it's a generational thing, but come on."
Kus' pet peeve is the "Gentlemen" salutation that begins the mass coaches' emails she receives.
"I had to send an email back," Kus said. "Can we please stop with the gender-exclusive greetings? It really is getting kind of old."
While the outlook for females who wish to coach boys sports is better than it ever has been, there is still a long way to go before an equal playing field is achieved. While women are making progress in coaching boys sports, men long have been accepted as coaches of girls teams, especially in basketball. Only three women coach varsity boys teams in the Chicago area, but 231 of 315 girls varsity squads, 73 percent, are coached by men.
"It is a double standard," Tesfamikael said. "Thinking about the future, if one day I have to leave this job or move away from Chicago, how many opportunities are there for a woman who wants to coach boys basketball?"
Said Puckorius: "There might be a bit of a double standard there, but it's also a volume question. There are just more men than women who want to get into coaching."Hannah Puckorius Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune
Hannah Puckorius talks to her team during a game against Rich Central at Mount Carmel on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017.
Hannah Puckorius talks to her team during a game against Rich Central at Mount Carmel on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017.(Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune)
Getting in the door
Evergreen Park High School in the south suburbs offers 11 boys sports, and three — cross country, soccer and swimming — have women coaches. James Soldan, athletic director at the 843-student school, says he has not made a special effort to hire women coaches for boys sports. It has just worked out that way as he has looked to bring the best possible candidates into his building.
"I hire the most qualified person for the job," Soldan said. "I think it's something that's not an issue in this day and age. If there's a qualified coach who happens to be female, who cares?"
Soldan said he has yet to receive an application from a woman for jobs in football, boys basketball or wrestling but said he would not hesitate to hire one if he thought she would be the best coach for the job.
"Sports like swimming or cross country, the applications are about 50-50 men and women," he said. "Right now we don't see as many women who are interested in the traditionally male-dominated sports, but could I see it happening in the future? Sure. Why not?"
Of the six boys sports offered at Johnson, females coach four. In addition to McKelvey, Alicen Buder coaches soccer and Latrise Muhammad coaches soccer and track and field.
"I'm surprised women coaching boys is even a story, to be honest," McKelvey said. "In my building, if you're competent at your job it's no problem."
Puckorius, a Chicago native whose freshman squad is 14-6 after two victories this week, said Mount Carmel's coaching staff recruited her after athletic director Dan LaCount and incoming head coach Phil Segroves saw her coach a fifth-grade boys team to the final round of a tournament at their school.
Kus has seen the squad's numbers grow from five to 11 to 37 in three years. McKelvey was hired as a co-head coach at Johnson and will be solely in charge of the program for the first time this year.
"Not everybody will get an opportunity like this, and some people won't take it," Tesfamikael said. "There was a lot of hesitation for me at first. But I woke up one day and said this is what I want to do. I had to get over whatever hang-ups I had about it."
Soldan said he has had trouble retaining female coaches for long tenures because many of them choose to cut back on extracurriculars upon starting families. Coaching has become an around-the-clock profession as even lower-level leaders seek to emulate the success of singularly focused coaches like Bill Belichick and Nick Saban.
"Ten or 15 years ago, coaches felt more comfortable having a life outside of work," Soldan said. "Now it's kind of like keeping up with the Joneses, where you feel you have to work all day so you don't fall behind everybody else."Angela Kus John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune
Angela Kus watches one of her athletes, Jamil Ramadan, compete in the IHSA wrestling regional at Fenton on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017, in Bensenville.
Angela Kus watches one of her athletes, Jamil Ramadan, compete in the IHSA wrestling regional at Fenton on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017, in Bensenville.(John J. Kim / Chicago Tribune)
Women basketball coaches have a role model in the NBA, where Becky Hammon is in her third season as a Spurs assistant. She led the team's Las Vegas Summer League squad to a championship in 2015.
"She's a great example for not only coaches but players as well," Puckorius said. "If a high school boy sees that Tim Duncan can learn something from a woman, then they probably can too."
"My first reaction was, she beat me to it," Tesfamikael said with a laugh. "It's great to see her do that, but it's still a big hill to climb. She played in the WNBA and the Olympics, and that got her foot in the door. Not a lot of people are capable of taking that path."
Football seems to be the final frontier for women coaches, with no head coaches among the area's 290 programs. In 2015, the Arizona Cardinals hired Jen Welter as an assistant coaching intern for training camp. The next year, the Bills made special-teams quality-control coach Kathryn Smith the NFL's first full-time assistant, though she was let go last month. Still, Illinois High School Association assistant executive director Matt Troha said he does not believe a team in the state ever has had a female varsity head coach.
While no numbers are available for female football assistants in Illinois, Kus said she knows she is not the only one.
"More and more now I do see long hair and a ponytail on the opposing sideline and I'm like, 'Yes!'
"It has changed fast. In the next five years, I wouldn't be surprised if there were a female coaching football."
Current female coaches of boys sports figure one way to increase their numbers is to prove themselves to their current athletes. Another is to encourage participation from as many girl athletes as possible, even in sports like wrestling or football that do not offer a girls statewide competition.
At last Saturday's 2A Fenton Regional, five of the seven schools with listed rosters, including Senn, had at least one girl wrestler.
"We're just reaching a point that gender roles don't mean as much," said Kus, who also has coached girls volleyball and softball at Washington and Carver high schools. "Ten years ago somebody might have looked at a female who wanted to get involved with wrestling or football as a creeper or something.
"Now were getting to the point where we're just part of the game."
FEMALE VARSITY COACHES BY SPORT
Volleyball: 62/180 = .344
Swimming: 51/154 = .331
Bowling: 21/118 = .178
Tennis: 23/179 = .128
Cross country: 31/246 = .126
Water polo: 9/81 = .111
Track and field: 21/241 = .087
Soccer: 18/274 = .066
Gymnastics: 2/43 = .047
Golf: 4/206 = .019
Wrestling: 3/250 = .012
Basketball: 3/342 = .009
Baseball: 1/289 = .003
Football: 0/290 = .000
Total: 249/2,893 = .086
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